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Curious and Curiouser

October 7, 2008

A listener could easily have ended up feeling a bit like Alice wandering through Wonderland, Monday evening at a program titled "Struck, Plucked, Scraped & Shaken," which San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented in the Arts Forum in Yerba Buena Center. A large crowd greeted the event with loud cheers for a semiritualistic program exhaling new music for percussion instruments. The performances were all superb, the compositions of mixed merit.
The program opened with Yiorgos Vassilandonakis' Cochleas (2005, premiered here) for solo percussionist, followed by Maki Ishii's Image in the Forest, Op. 120 (2001) for solo harp and Franck Bedrossian's Digital (2003) for contrabass, percussionist, and electronic tape. After intermission we faced Ishii's Fourteen Percussions, Op. 119 (2000) for two percussionists, plus György Ligeti's Sippal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel (With pipes, drums, fiddles) (2000), for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists. By the time the concert ended, I felt nearly as beaten as the instruments.

Two of the works struck me —pun hardly intended — as being of the highest merit: Bedrossian's Digital and, not surprisingly, Ligeti's seven playful songs on poems of Sándor Weöres. The former work featured bassist Richard Worn, percussionist Daniel Kennedy, and an unlisted electrocuter. (I'm guessing it was the company's standard sound engineer, Gregory T. Kuhn.) Ligeti's whimsical songs featured mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, accompanied by Christopher Froh, Daniel Kennedy, Benjamin Paysen, and William Winant.

Parisian Bedrossian's Digital was commissioned by the CIRM of Nice as part of the national effort to promote new music. He's obviously interested in new sonorities, and many of those were evident in his strong sense of overall architecture. What came across was essentially a showpiece for contrabass. Extreme registers dominated, including threatening groans played behind the bridge of the instruments — a kind of variations on Berlioz' suggestion for very high squeak, best known from the final scene of Strauss' opera Salome. The percussionist also displayed his share of unorthodox techniques, such as "singing" the metal instruments with a bass bow. The electronic element, however, was minimal — little more than shadowy soft drones in the background.

Bedrossian was present for the occasion and able to take his cheers with grace, as he was recalled to the stage by genuine audience enthusiasm.
Ligeti, in Brief
György Ligeti is always good for a surprise. His song cycles are mostly children's songs, and largely tonal, set to the quasi-Asian minimalist poetry of Weöres. An example seems in order. The open lines are:

The other mountain comes toward it
The wolves howl ...
Titles for the seven brief songs are: Fable, Dance Song (sung to meaningless symbols), Chinese Temple (for which the text read downward rather than left to right), Coolie (in pidgin-Chinese style: "If coolie die? Coolie die. Coolie can nooooot die! Coolie forever?"), Dream (Twelfth Symphony), Bitter-Sweet (67th Hungarian Etude), and Parakeet — again, to gibberish sounds.

Nessinger was simply marvelous, even singing in Hungarian, though how well I have not the wherewithal to judge. But I can report that she possesses high musicianship as well as a clean, clear mezzo voice that was consistently lovely in timbre even in the high register. She also acted out the song just a tad, adding much to the general effect. Brava, Nessinger!

Percussionists were doing all sorts of unexpected things, often on unusual instruments. All four players, for example, had little mouth organs hung around their necks, and at one point played them in harmony. There was naturally the usual array of metal, wooden, and skin drums, some struck, some played with the "wrong" kind of beaters, others bowed. All this was skillfully managed by conductor David Milnes, his only participation in the event.

This concert was as memorable for me as when the San Francisco Opera staged Ligeti's adorable work Le grand Macabre, his tribute to hope in a world gone mad with fear, with its closing line, "... live life merrily." I think many listeners can be serious about having fun, and Ligeti certainly represents that much, via his mastery of style.
Lost in the Woods
Ishii (1936-2003) was educated in Tokyo and Berlin, winning performances and prizes in both cities. But his two works on this program struck me as bland, cliche-ridden, and flat-out dull. Image in the Forest used a few koto techniques but was encumbered by masses of lengthy glissandos, running up and down the strings, up and down, down and up. Those last were so omnipresent that they hinted at a caricature. Even the sensitive virtuosity of harpist Karen Gottlieb could not save the piece from drowning in its own compositional ineptitude.

Each of the two players of Ishii's Fourteen Percussions can choose freely from among seven instruments of certain types. One player is directed to play only high-pitched instruments, the other low. So much to the good, as played by Kennedy and Loren Mach. But a composer's job is to invent something in the way of rhythmic interest for the musicians to play, and in this Ishii failed. Ordinary, simplistic patterns of the most obvious sort dominated in what seemed like a faint effort. The playing was fine, but the piece unworthy of the effort.

Vassilandonakis was educated in Athens, attended UCLA while working on film and television projects, and finally earned a doctorate at UC Berkeley. Some of his inventive performance techniques were, I believe, first-time events. They included such things as playing a vibraphone with a triangle in one hand and its beater in the other, tapping a muted tam-tam, and the like. Yet in the long run, his music in this concert sounded more about instrumentation than music. The piece simply failed to scan for the ear, sounding like a string of microevents that did not achieve a sense of unity. Vassilandonakis attended the performance, where he was wildly cheered, but sorry, not by me.

Still, two masterful works on any program of modern music is a pretty fine average.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.